A vegetarian’s guide to Mongolia
When my 15-year-old daughter was about to leave for a three-week trip (with World Challenge) to Mongolia, I was worried. Not whether she would fall off a horse, get severe blisters, have a drunk enter her camp, be soaked to the skin in a torrential downpour or be besieged by horse flies (all these things did actually happen), I was worried about what she was going to eat as a vegetarian in a place where not eating meat is viewed as a complete oddity. It was pretty much the first question I asked on her return. The whole trip was pretty amazing so I asked her to write a guest post. So here’s Bea’s account of the foods she encountered during her time in Mongolia and two days in China (Beijing):
Throughout my World Challenge trip to Mongolia the topic of conversation within my group invariably turned to food. Though we were by no means underfed, the allure of what we would eat when we arrived home helped us get through the seemingly endless 50 km foot trek we were subjected to. Everyone started to crave all the classic junk food; my personal weakness is for pizza but people were longing for everything from ‘Chocopies’ to their mum’s dhal. Despite wishing for the familiar, we had a variety of interesting meals in Mongolia and China over the three weeks we were there.
The Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar has a good choice of restaurants and even though we were eating on a tight budget, we nearly always found something to keep everyone happy. With me, a vegetarian, a Muslim and a very fussy eater on our team this wasn’t always an easy matter, but we were pleasantly surprised by the type of dishes we found. Amongst the cafés we visited for breakfast, we found European-style bakeries that clearly catered to foreigners like us. The French and German bakeries offered lots of sweet treats to fill us up in the morning – crepes, cakes, Berliners, éclairs, you name it. The first night, however, we decided to try a Mongolian restaurant close to the hostel we were staying in, so we could get a taste of the local cuisine early on. Although most people went for fried chicken which was possibly less than authentic, I tried the fried noodles, or ‘tsuivan’. These were mixed with mixed vegetables, like carrots, peppers and courgettes. I really enjoyed these, and we all returned to this restaurant, the ‘Venus Café’, the next time we were in the capital. After a disappointing night out the next day, as we couldn’t find the restaurant described in the lonely planet, we chose a vegetarian restaurant to visit (through no influence of mine!). ‘Luna Bianca’ served excellent tofu for me, amongst other super healthy dishes. This type of catering for vegetarians was very unusual in Mongolia, though, as most of the locals were bemused when I tried to ask for a dinner entirely without meat.
As we travelled out of the capital, we stopped in Tsetserleg where we found a café called Fairfields which was set up by some very enterprising Australians. It had everything backpacker could want: cakes, full English breakfast and (paid) wi-fi. Those of us who wanted to save our money, sat outside on the pavement, boiled some water on a camp stove and made pot noodle, much to the amusement of the locals.
Our wranglers on trek (the local men who organised and owned the horses we rode) laughed when I used their camp fire the boil water for pasta, thus eschewing the meat stew they had just prepared. As part of their fee for taking us out into the wild Mongolian countryside we bought them a sheep, along with one for ourselves to stop the carnivores from going crazy. The wranglers prepared theirs first, and we were all invited to watch. For obvious reasons, I declined, but the brave who decided to watch the sheep being killed had to sample liver and small intestine as a symbol of politeness which might not have been up my street… They used up all the meat gradually, but mainly cooked it in a big mutton stew. They prepared this by boiling water, vegetables and lots of smooth rocks together in a big pot on the fire. When they had finished cooking the meat, they removed these rocks and gave us one each. As per tradition, we had to toss the scalding rocks from hand to hand until they cooled down-this apparently helped with digestion.
During trekking (which involved camping every night) we tried to be as creative as possible, creating dishes of risotto, vegetable chilli and pasta salad. For a couple of lunchtimes the food team had to wake up very early to a simple flat bread out of flour, water and oil. We smothered these with chocolate spread, jam and in some cases salami to keep us going during the long day of work.
We had a chance one morning to visit a ger, the traditional house in the countryside of Mongolia. Here we sampled some traditional food, which was all dairy based. We tried jaw breaking cheese curds, something very similar to clotted cream, milk tea and some strange concoction that looked like scrambled eggs but tasted more like cheese. Needless to say, this wasn’t quite to our ultra sweet, extra salty western tastes… Luckily, we weren’t offered ‘airag’, a fermented horse milk alcohol popular in Mongolia, though I think this was much to the disappointment of our teachers who bent the trip rules slightly to have a beer when we arrived in China.
After trekking, we went to a charity summer centre on the outskirts of UB, where we ate the same meals as the children (though I suspect the kitchen staff tried to alter it to more suit our tastes). With the others eating filled dumplings and meat noodles, they mostly fed me a diet of cabbage, carrots and onions though I did fill up on some fried bread they kept serving us, which we eventually nicknamed ‘doughnut bread’. This went down a storm, until someone pointed out the they would probably go straight to our waistline…from that point on the girls especially seemed to avoid what was before the most popular thing on the table.
After project, we returned to UB, and had our last meal in ‘Marco Polo’, an Italian that served some very welcome milkshakes. We all enjoyed our pizza, pasta and calzone but my favourite part of that restaurant was their piano. The pianists in the group spent the meal alternating between eating and tinkering on the instrument, probably to the annoyance of the other diners. Needless to say, I didn’t join the group who found KFC.
After a three o’clock start to catch our flight, we were desperate for our lunch when we arrived in China, and it was a good thing because the serving sizes were huge! In the classic little Chinese street we stayed in there were a surplus of authentic restaurants, but we could only try a small few. Most of us struggled with the high amounts of MSG in the food, with several people getting cramps but I was safe with my tofu broth and my egg dumplings over the two days. We also visited Wangfujing street, where there were tons of little stalls crammed in selling the most bizarre food. As a vegetarian I was exempt from trying any of the scorpions, starfish or cockroaches we saw there but even so I would advise caution when eating there. The noodles I ordered at a small sit down café were supposed to contain only vegetables but after finding small bits of stray meat in them, I decided against eating any. What I did have were some sugar-coated grapes on a kebab, which were a great sweet treat. I also tried some small pastries, which were stuffed full with cream and exploded in your mouth the moment you bit into them!
Of course, my final meals of the trip were on the plane – and despite the usual stigma around plane food – the meal I had on Qatar Airways was reasonably edible. One perk of being veggie is you always get your meal before everyone else (though this is balanced out by the fact they never give you pudding – apparently all vegetarians should be healthy and eat fruit salad…).
Words and images by Bea (and a few by friends on the trip).
- Mongolia, Gers & Nomadic Lifestyle (miliking-meanderings.com)
- Mongolia: Running for Yak Milk, Sand Dunes, and Community (notrunningforgold.wordpress.com)
- Backpackers’ diaries: horse riding in Mongolia (guardian.co.uk)